I Took a Ski Trip to Lake Tahoe During COVID — Here’s What It Was Like
Lift lines, rentals, and après ski look a bit different these days, but the thrill of hitting the slopes is alive and well. Here's how to plan a safe trip before the season ends.
Editor's Note: Those who choose to travel are strongly encouraged to check local government restrictions, rules, and safety measures related to COVID-19 and take personal comfort levels and health conditions into consideration before departure.
Living near the beach in Los Angeles during COVID-19 means you spend a lot of time sitting and staring at the ocean — and that is not a complaint. The Pacific's crashing waves offer a comforting soundtrack on hard days, and year-round mild weather is truly a blessing when spending time outdoors is the only alternative to staying home. But sometimes, no matter how beautiful it is, you just need a change of scenery.
So when my travel partner suggested going skiing — something I may not have considered pre-COVID (I went 30-plus years without launching myself down an icy mountain and was just fine, thank you very much) — I jumped at the chance. Suddenly, bundling up, getting active, challenging myself to learn something new, and spending time among snowy peaks and pine trees sounded like a brilliant idea.
Though it's most famous for its sun-soaked coastline, Southern California is within driving distance of some amazing ski destinations, from Mammoth and Big Bear to our choice, Lake Tahoe. We took a whole week off, and as a new skier, I thought Reno-Tahoe would be my best bet for access to a mix of activities in case I didn't find my groove on the slopes.
In the end, I did learn to (mostly) love skiing, but I was right: Reno-Tahoe is ideal for first-timers who want to mix some downtime in a small city with a true ski experience at the resorts on the north side of the lake, all within driving distance. Here's what to know before you plan a trip of your own.
Splurging a little on private transportation was worth it.
The drive from Los Angeles to North Lake Tahoe is about eight hours — fine if you have ample PTO to burn, or if you want to plan a stopover. There are gorgeous parks to explore along the way, including Yosemite National Park, where you can go Airstream glamping at AutoCamp.
If you feel safe flying commercial at this stage of the pandemic, flights between LAX and Reno are only an hour and a half, and you'll find round-trip tickets from about $100.
To maximize our time on the slopes and avoid crowds, we opted to book a flight from Burbank to Reno-Tahoe on JSX, a private airline that allows passengers to book individual seats. We spent just about double what we would have on commercial flights for our dates (check the site's fare calendar — you can find seats between LA and Tahoe for just over $200 round-trip), and the convenience and peace of mind, especially during COVID, was worth every penny.
We flew out of the private JSX hangar at Burbank, where they valeted our car, took our temperatures, checked us in, and took our bags in a matter of minutes. We only needed to arrive 20 minutes before takeoff (a true luxury), and seats for travelers waiting to board were distanced throughout the "lounge," a roped-off area within the hangar. When our plane arrived, we walked just a few steps to board. Sanitizing wipes were hande out and masks were mandatory except when eating and drinking (snacks and both alcoholic and soft drinks were included), and planes can hold 30 passengers, though neither leg was fully booked. I was happy to learn JetBlue's TrueBlue points can be earned by booking JSX flights, and two checked bags of 50 pounds each are included with the lower Hop On fare.
Rushing through the car rental process was a mistake.
We rented a car from Hertz at Reno-Tahoe International Airport, and there are a few things I'd do differently next time. First, instead of popping in and out as quickly as possible like I always did in pre-COVID times, I'd closely inspect the inside of the car. Mid-way through our trip, I realized it hadn't been cleaned properly when I found someone else's used mask and receipts down the side of the passenger seat. Not so shocking in normal times from a major car rental service, but not a good look during a pandemic.
Second, I'd strongly suggest renting a car with four-wheel drive that can handle the snow. Four-wheel drive or snow chains are required when driving up the mountain to Tahoe ski resorts, and for good reason. Snow wasn't in the forecast when we arrived, but it did snow, twice. This made for great skiing, but treacherous sedan driving.
Spending time in Reno was a nice way to break up the trip.
Reno bills itself as "The Biggest Little City in the World," and it felt like being in a miniature Las Vegas without the crowds. We spent three nights at the Whitney Peak Hotel, a non-gaming, non-smoking boutique hotel in the heart of the city, and it was serene, comfortable, and affordable (doubles from $102/night) with spacious rooms (necessary for all our ski equipment), a stylish restaurant, an outdoor climbing wall, and a club level that served quick breakfasts and simple happy hours. Each time we stopped in for a drink or bite, we were the only ones there.
The hotel closed last spring to develop new COVID-19 cleanliness practices, which are in effect until further notice. Washoe County, where Reno is located, has seen a total of 43,052 cases, according to Nevada Hospital Association data reported by the Regional Information Center, and 646 deaths. Vaccinations have been underway in the county since December.
Casinos in Reno are open, but masks are required and dividers separate seats at limited gaming tables. Indoor dining is allowed, but masks are required except at your table.
The food scene in Reno is noticeably underrated, with restaurants like Liberty Food & Wine Exchange serving locally sourced meats, housemade pastas, wood-fired veggies, and artfully prepared seafood along with creative cocktails. Family-owned Midtown Eats, craft breweries Great Basin and The Depot, and dessert bar The Arch Society are all delicious après ski stops.
Art Spot Reno offers an unexpected socially distant outdoor activity: walking tours of the city's vibrant street art, including everything from murals to sculptures. As the "gateway to Burning Man," Reno is home to major artistic talent, which is especially on view in Midtown.
Many ski resorts are within a 30- to 60-minute drive from downtown, including Mt. Rose, Diamond Peak, and Northstar. Starting out in Reno also makes it easy to shop for any last-minute gear or supplies you may need. We visited the local Ski Pro more times than I wish to admit.
North Lake Tahoe has a resort for every type of skier.
Best for ski partners of varying levels: Mt. Rose
Mt. Rose, the resort at Tahoe's highest base elevation and a favorite among locals, had super knowledgeable staff and a great range of runs, including plenty of beginner-to-intermediate-friendly greens and blues for me, and advanced blues and blacks on both sides of the mountain for him. A large outdoor patio with picnic tables and takeaway service is currently open for lunch, along with an indoor saloon with properly spaced and sanitized tables for après ski. Adult all-day passes start at $90 on weekdays, and it's wise to book in advance to get the best price. Private lessons tend to sell out quickly. See health and safety policies on their website.
Best for Lake Tahoe views: Diamond Peak
At 655 acres, Diamond Peak was the smallest of the resorts we visited, and its boutique feel made it a great place for a beginner like myself to get more comfortable with the sport. But above all else, Diamond Peak is the place to go for views. Anyone who makes it past the bunny slopes (humble brag) will be able to admire the sparkling blue lake while they zoom through the snow, and the best spot of all to relax and take in your surroundings is the sun deck at the Snowflake Lodge, where spare ribs, pulled pork sandwiches, mac and cheese and more are cooked up at lunchtime for outdoor diners, along with a bar serving beer and wine. Currently, lift tickets must be purchased online. Adult one-day lift tickets are $109 on weekdays and $124 on weekends. See health and safety policies on their website.
Best for families: Northstar California
At Northstar California, it's common to see families taking lessons together — and some of the ski instructors are family as well. My instructor, Karen, explained how special the family dynamic is at the resort just before we passed her son, a member of the ski patrol. A true ski village experience, Northstar has runs for every level of skier and après ski options for all tastes. Michael Mina's Bourbon Pub was our favorite for cozy, fire-side outdoor dining serving tasty bites and fun cocktails. Lunch is also served at The Ritz-Carlton, Lake Tahoe, located slopeside. With 3,170 skiable acres situated on Mount Pluto, an extinct volcano, the terrain feels massive, but gets busy. Buy lift tickets in advance to save ($137 for adults online, $169 same day), and if your plans change, they are refundable. Masking was enforced at all the resorts, but from our experience, most strictly at Northstar. See health and safety policies on their website.
Hitting the slopes early (and on weekdays) is the best way to avoid crowds.
Most resorts open between 8 and 9 a.m., and being the first ones out there was key, from getting the best parking spot and avoiding crowds in the rental area and locker room, to getting on ski lifts without waiting in line and being ready for lunch before peak time. Although capacity is limited due to COVID, regulations mean only members of the same household are riding together on ski lifts, causing longer wait times throughout the late morning and afternoon. If you can travel on weekdays, you'll also find resorts are predictably less busy than on weekends.
It does help to invest in your own ski equipment.
Although staffers were helpful and efficient in choosing the right gear and everything was sanitized, rental areas were where we saw the most congestion at the resorts, especially late-morning. It's also where being near to strangers indoors was the most necessary. So, if you can, and you're sure you're committed to the sport, buy your own equipment and skip that step. We found boots and skis from top brands at Ski Pro for about half the price they were being sold at other area ski stores, though smaller mountain shops were plentiful and had the newest gear and extremely knowledgeable employees. Rent the Runway-type services are available for skiwear now as well, and they'll deliver straight to your hotel.
This year is a great time to take private ski lessons — at any level.
For my level, private lessons were a necessity. But for any level, they come with one major, day-changing perk: you get to skip every lift line. To avoid crowds during COVID, and to maximize any trip, it's worth booking a lesson if you can swing it. Unless you're Lindsey Vonn, there are always new tricks and tips to learn and confidence to build. Book ahead online, because spots are limited. To save, you can often share one private instructor with family or friends.
Your home base matters.
We spent our last three nights at the Hyatt Regency Lake Tahoe Resort, Spa & Casino, where private cottages make it easy to keep your distance — a kitchen, living room with fireplace, porch with a view, and on-site parking make it unnecessary to leave your personal space — and ski shuttles are offered regularly to Diamond Peak.
Located on the stunning lakefront with a snow-tipped Sierra Nevada backdrop, the lodge-style resort is a warm, cozy, and luxurious place to unwind after a day on the slopes, and the après ski lake view at the cottage-side Lone Eagle Grill — where local game, steaks, and seafood are served at dinnertime beside an expertly curated wine selection — is the best in town if you can score a reservation. Indoor dining is allowed, but capacity is limited.
The main hotel's heated, indoor-outdoor pool is a family favorite, though Jacuzzis are closed due to COVID. The Stillwater Spa is performing select services; call ahead to book. Double rooms start around $152/night. See full health and safety policies on their website.
COVID means there are rules — and if you choose to travel, you need to follow them.
From Reno to Incline Village to each ski resort, store, and restaurant, COVID-safe rules were enforced, and sometimes varied slightly. If you travel anywhere these days, it's more important than ever to do your research ahead of time — and to pay extra attention to your surroundings when you're there. Reno-Tahoe sits at the Nevada-California border, and state guidelines can vary as well.
So wear a mask; wash your hands; keep six feet apart; book ahead; sanitize, sanitize, sanitize — and be nice to people, especially locals who are working to keep your trip safe. If they've put rules or restrictions in place, they've done so for a reason. For more information on area policies and things to do, go to visitrenotahoe.com.
Nina Ruggiero is Travel + Leisure's deputy digital editor. A New Yorker living in Los Angeles, she's happiest on a beach, a cobblestone street, or in a hotel bathtub with a view. Find her on Instagram @ninamarienyc.